Saving Civilization

You do not need us to tell you that Western Civilization is in severe decline. In fact, if you are the sort we feel most comfortable with, you drone on about it constantly at the risk of alienating others. The hallmarks of a great civilization are high achievement, moral integrity, intellectual vigor, cultural abundance and an eternal vigilance for the next party. Every so often we bring you a new essay that pinpoints exactly where civilization has gone wrong and how we might fix it. Yes, it would be tempting to throw in the towel and proclaim civilization hopelessly irretrievable at this point, but as Queen Elizabeth l once said in an old movie, “friendship grows slowly when nurtured only by complaints.” And so, may you be inspired to gather up the few unspoilt fruits of civilization that remain, preserving and enjoying them until the bitter, horrible end descends upon us all... 

The Decline of the Record Store Snob

In a recent episode of "Maron," Maron seeks the approval of a record store snob.

Hipster snobbery is a fluid concept. One snarky scenester's trash is another's treasure. At some point in a person's life, they realize that hipsters are annoying, emotionally stunted individuals obsessed with being cool. I recall, for instance, the liner notes on a particular Ramones re-release penned by music "journalist" Kurt Loder. In his rather predictable gushing praise for the band, he said that liking the Ramones was essential to establishing one's "cool credentials." If ever there was a window into the pathetic mind of a hipster, that was it for me. I imagined encountering an East German border guard and being asked for my "papers" - my cool credentials. I replied that I liked King Crimson and Yes and was shot on sight. But while the attainment of "cool credentials" may be a tired, adolescent cliche, there is one place in civilization where hipster snobbery should be preserved - the used record store.

I am troubled by the decline of the surly record store clerk. It is an art to possess just the right balance of bile and helpfulness to assist your customer in finding that limp Dave Matthews record without so overwhelming them with condescension that they walk out the door. Record store snobs must radiate a wide range of subtle negative emotions while avoiding outright anger. If this skill was taught in school, there might be fewer violent crimes worldwide. The more subtlety a record store snob can apply, the better the experience for you, the buyer. Why? Because as soon you enter a record store, whether you are aware of it or not, you want to astound the clerk with your profoundly elegant taste in music. A grand slam would be to dump six or seven records on the counter and watch the clerk ring them up while muttering things like "excellent choice," "darn, I was going to get this myself," and the ultimate - "finally, someone who appreciates X. Nobody who comes in here even knows about this."

I can appreciate the subtle art of the record store clerk. Once, I encountered one who was playing some Miles Davis that I instantly recognized as being from the "Bitches Brew" era. I had already gotten on his good side by asking where the "Gong" section was, so I inquired whether the Miles Davis he was playing was a bootleg recorded with the same lineup as Bitches Brew. Since I was with my girlfriend, I thought myself fairly clever all around and was expecting to impress both her and the clerk at the same time. But pride comes before a fall and the joke was on me. In true record snob fashion, the clerk informed me that I was wrong about the lineup, that the "bootleg" was a well-known release and then, to bury me completely, flashed me that "how could you not know this if you claim to like Miles Davis?" expression. He did it all with a subtle condescending grace that absolutely infuriated me and made me want to jump the counter and beat him senseless. This was a great day at the record store.

But there are signs the record snob's days are numbered. This may seem counterintuitive given the rebirth of vinyl culture and the assumption that each new generation will produce its fair share of hipsters. But as time marches on and we are farther removed from the original generation of record store snobs, I fear the art of subtle condescension will be lost. I fear a creeping paralysis that, like a virus overtaking an entire species of tree, will spread until all record stores offer a shopping experience akin to that of dropping your computer off at the Geek Squad counter.

First of all, effective snobbery requires knowledge. It is the record store clerk's knowledge that makes his or her snobbery acceptable. Simply possessing an encyclopedic recall because you are paid to file records into various bins all day does not constitute knowledge. A record snob needs to possess a philosophy of life that informs their condescension that few who enter their gates are worthy. This requires a good amount of introspection on just how feebly off the mark the world really is. When I was first shopping for records as a teenager, the clerks at my favorite store would all sit around and philosophize about the state of the world and what bits of lost glory were in danger of utter extinction. I would stand at a distance, thumbing through the bins and hoping to avoid the black hole of used Chicago vinyl, and listen to their banter. Much of it was hot air, like the idiots who stand around Job as he lays in sackcloth and try to explain how he must have sinned against God. But that hot air provided just the right atmosphere for the experience. I fear tomorrow's record store clerks, weaned on mindless social media, will lack the frames of reference necessary to pontificate about the world's ills while telling customers to look for Journey in the "J" section rather than expect to find a bin tab for such a lame band.

Second of all, effective snobbery requires extreme subtlety. I was in a record store recently where the clerk attempted to play Heart's Dog and Butterfly. Now playing an ironic or guilty pleasure record is a hipster staple, like enjoying a bad movie. But irony requires a certain thoughtfulness. There is no world where Heart is an ironic choice. Especially Dog and Butterfly. Dreamboat Annie, maybe. So for a moment, I thought, could it be that this clerk is playing this record for the sheer pleasure of it? Have we reached that point where we can enjoy something just for its intrinsic qualities and not because it "represents" something? Have we finally exited the dreary echo chamber of postmodernism? I have waited a long time for something like this. I still enjoy Led Zeppelin. I still think the original Star Wars is exciting. I don't abandon a work that has moved me once it is seized by the opportunistic, neutering forces of capitalism and bandwagon jumping. But in the case of the clerk who played Heart, I suspect the motive was irony. If so, we can look forward to a future where record store clerks spin increasingly facile choices that neither excite nor provoke.

Lastly, effective snobbery requires an assumption that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. I recently entered a record store looking for a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. I know what you're thinking: why don't I already have this in my collection? Never mind that. The point is I was looking for a copy and saw one behind the counter. Knowing the proliferation of new vinyl in today's market, I asked the clerk if it was an original issue. He said no, that it was the new, 180-gram re-issue and did I want it? I said no thanks, I would keep looking for an original pressing. To which he snorted, "why would you want old vinyl?" I was so taken aback by this non-sequitur given our surroundings that it took a while to respond. This clerk was well into his fifties. He proceeded to explain the new vinyl process and superior quality of the pressings. But, I countered, it doesn't have the "feel" of the past, does it? How could it? You can't smell the years in the cardboard. The colors on the sleeve aren't as vibrant - clearly spit out by a computer. The grooves are virgin, untested. No scratches. No scratches on an old punk record? No thanks.

I'm no record snob, but it just didn't seem right. I left the store. But I sincerely hope the record store snob doesn't leave us. The day they do, a little darkness will go out of the world.